Feature film

Slow West Review: The Pretty and Harsh Past

Friday, May 29, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Slow West

Director: John Maclean
Writer: John Maclean
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five.
Available now in limited release and on demand.

The Western has had many iterations, surviving through every artistic movement since their inception more than a century ago. Some have said a return to the earnestness of the mid-20th century might be the genre's path forward after decades of deconstruction and postmodernism. Slow West, John Maclean's debut feature after a career in music with The Beta Band and other acts, suggests a blending of multiple ideologies regarding Westerns is best. Who knows if this mix will influence future films of its ilk, but for this instance, it works like gangbusters.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) plays Jay Cavendish, a 16-year-old Scottish immigrant to the American West, searching for the girl he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Unknown to (or denied by?) Jay, Rose and her father (Rory McCann) are fugitives, having left Scotland under a cloud of criminality. Now there's a bounty on their heads in America, leaving every bounty hunter in the West, including Michael Fassbender's Silas Selleck, on their trail. The rugged, cynical Silas agrees to aid the helpless Jay find safe passage for a fee, while also using the boy as a guide straight to his target. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn's Payne and his gang, Silas's old posse, are on the same path. It's a linear narrative, full of inevitability, staged economically at a lean 84 minutes.

But there's a lot packed into that short span. Slow West is a film of great beauty, owing much to the vistas of John Ford, but in a newer way – reverent but with its mind on the downsides of life. The colors aren't in glorious Technicolor but more based in reality. Luckily, that reality happens to be the valleys and forests of New Zealand, where the movie was shot. That location is anachronistic, maybe even blasphemous, for Western purists, but it is essential to the theme of Jay being (mostly) happily out of place with his surroundings – this world is as new to us as it is to him. But to him, as bewildering as this new world may be, it is gorgeous. He sees flowers in bloom, inviting high grass, forests of wonder. He sees other travelers and ingratiates himself to them not through charm but through sincerity. This is a product of his privileged upbringing, which allows him to see the world as essentially good until it proves itself otherwise on his trip.

Silas has already learned those lessons. In a brilliantly subtle nod to his cynicism, Maclean often shows Jay's view of the beauty around him, then immediately cuts, while Fassbender speaks in voiceover about his dismissal of Jay's childlike ways, to different, further away angles with harsher views of the same objects. It's a literal distancing effect, detaching Silas from a world he disdains.

But as these two characters come to know each other, the beauty starts colliding with the harshness, with plenty of humor as a further counterpoint. The guys bond over absinthe and the subsequent pratfalls such imbibing would suggest, all while discussing heavier things like love and difficult upbringings. Jay meets a German “anthropologist” named Werner – a nod to filmmaker Werner Herzog – who says he is writing a book about the “American aboriginals” with a hilariously long title that indicates an ugly misunderstanding of Native Americans on his part but also a wonder in them – his later actions are beautiful in that “tough but necessary life lesson” way, but are nonetheless petty. The violent climax takes place in a wheat field, with a newly built cabin as a visual encroachment of society in this primal place. Blood spatters in perversely satisfactory ways. Salt literally gets rubbed in wounds.

It all culminates in a Western that loves the past while acknowledging that past's insufficiency. It is a film about learning from what came before and moving forward with a bit of grace to accompany your scars, whether you're proud of them or not.   

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